That was the veterinarian’s foreboding diagnosis of our beloved family pet Benny, a Yorkie, two years ago. He was 3 years old at the time and had been having episodes of labored breathing. Through a series of vet visits, we learned that Yorkies often suffer from the slow tightening of their tracheas. If it escalates, they actually make a honking sound.
We had been able to manage Benny’s trachea until one night this past August when his honking returned with great intensity. My wife and I feared the worst as our two daughters slept. We gave Benny his meds and tried to calm him, but by 4 a.m. I couldn’t take it anymore and drove him to an emergency veterinary clinic.
I remember that drive well because of Benny’s strikingly normal behavior. Though exhausted and panting, he continued to go through the motions — albeit more slowly — of what he always did during car rides. He ignored my pleas to calm down and sit, he walked back and forth across my lap to look out the windows, and he nervously peed and pooped all over me. As I witnessed his slow-motion routines, I thought: “He doesn’t realize he’s dying.”
The emergency vet sedated Benny at 5 a.m. but by 1 p.m. I ended up taking him to a surgical hospital for animals. The specialist there said a tracheal stent might give Benny several more years of health, though it would be risky. Fearing the loss of our dog at the young age of 5, we ordered the surgery.
While humans make much of the youth-to-old-age cycle of life, a family pet teaches us how to revel in the present, rather than dwell on regret or the sting of lost potential.
During my wait at the surgery center, I noticed various nooks of the large waiting room designed for anxious families. Kleenex boxes peppered the scene, which told me things might get much grimmer very soon. On a lighter note, when I commiserated with a woman about the high cost of our dogs’ surgeries, she justified the expense with a gender-role reversal: “I just can’t stand to see my husband keep crying.”
Alas, the surgery helped Benny, but two months later the torturous gasping for air returned. We had exhausted the medical options; it was time to ease him into his final sleep.
We felt terrible. When a family pet dies young, it feels unjust. My youngest daughter spoke for all of us when she whispered through her tears: “I don’t want him to go.”
But we did feel good about ending his suffering. And I took some solace in that vision from the car ride with Benny. It showed me that while his early death was traumatic for our family, Benny himself never seemed aware of his impending doom. While humans make much of the youth-to-old-age cycle of life, the family pet just seems to live their right in front of us. They teach us how to revel in the present, rather than dwell on regret or the sting of lost potential.
As a former English professor, I also find solace in literary quotations during hard times such as when a family pet dies. For example, any early death calls to my mind the famous epitaph of British poet John Keats, who died of tuberculosis at 25. Aware that he was dying young, Keats requested his tombstone read “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Another of my favorite quotations is from Virgil’s Georgics: “Optima dies … prima fugit,” a Latin phrase meaning “the best days … are the first to flee.” This phrase captures the honeymoon quality of all those sublime “firsts” in our families’ lives that pass by too fast — the first steps and words we experience with our babies, but also the memories of when our pets were puppies, kittens, etc. Ironically, because adult Benny weighed only seven pounds, I called him our “permanent puppy.” In that sense, he extended the life of those “best days” for our family.
Finally, I also take solace in a familiar quote I heard most recently at an eighth-grade graduation. While students were lamenting the end of their middle school years, a classmate reminded them of Dr. Seuss’s helpful formulation: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Amen. Now please go give your pet an extra squeeze in honor of Benny.